The construction of post-war Britain was subject to government’s restrictions and policies that defined and influenced the development of public spaces. School buildings for instance, were based on the policy of a single education system recommending the necessity to have compulsory leave for children who had attained age threshold. On the other hand, the buildings, through Acts like the New Towns Acts of 1946 and Planning Act of 1947, were majorly based on the government’s intention of having a future design for the city. Other significant contributions were from legislative representatives and ministers like Harold MacMillan who suggested the introduction or focus on high-rise and high-density buildings. Hence, as the essay explores, both Labour and Conservative governments had their own versions of developing future Britain which would be manifested in the design of estates, the school system, and design of all buildings and public spaces.
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The government’s policies had profound influence on the construction and design of houses, schools, and most public spaces. For instance, with the emergence from the world war era, architects and designers considered redesigning schools; the buildings were redone by considering the composition of the schools. The government had a policy compelling schools to group children together and this was part of the regulation standard that influenced the building and development of schools. The struggles against the government restriction would be evident from the Essendon and Cheshunt scenario when the artists decided to design a unique version of their schools. However, the designers had to confront the inherent challenge on the inadequacy of data, more so the lack of anthropometric data forcing artists like David Medd to rely on the sizes of the school children in the country. Essentially, it marked the beginning of the government’s restrictions on the design and construction of public spaces, specifically abiding by the traditional designs which were based on the government’s recommended threshold on what was defined as the perfect design for school spaces. In addition, much of the development was on the education system as the post-war era turned them into contested sites. Few of the designers including David Medd, Mary Crowley, and Bruce Matin were some of the high-profiled educationalist planers and became specialist in designing and planning for the education system.
The beginning of the government’s policy influence was from Thatcher’s regime, which in the post-war era, recommended the implementation of the free-for-all policy; Thatcher was the first British prime minister to introduce the consumer culture from the American culture. Her policy was on the introduction of the economics of free market, with the public spaces being defined by individual responsibility. She was the embodiment of the greater changes to come; her policies were a shift from the conventionalism pattern approach, and the successive policies would be a reflection of the optimistic age after the world war. The new era evidently portrayed a shift in housing and design, as evident from the changes in the design of the street furniture; even the design of the cities and public spaces changed profoundly. Thatcher’s recommended changes resonated with the belief of the artists, designers, and architects that “the post-war period was an era for reconstruction with unprecedented opportunities for participating in the shaping as well as developing democratic and the aesthetic vision of the new Britain”. Therefore, the new era was believed to be a democracy from the traditional building and design of the public spaces whereby the government had an influence on how the streets, buildings including schools, residents or housing would be designed. However, this was not the case because the labour government equally sought to experiment the state’s provision of services from a universal perspective of which the policy being pursued was for the equity in development to ensure or provide for the right of each individual. In reality, the era reflected excessive government or state control on building, arts, and architectural designs.
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One of the examples of the government’s decision and ideation of controlling the building and design of the post-war Britain was the Festival of Britain in 1951. Hugh Casson had been appointed as the director of Architecture responsible for organising the festival; his role was to appoint some of the architects who would design the buildings. Since the event was government sponsored, it was the perfect time for showcasing the urban design principles which the government wanted to feature on the post-war reconstruction of London, including other cities and towns. The Festival was another project from the government, especially a project closely linked to the Labour party, which was overseen by Herbert Morrison as the Deputy Prime Minister as well as the Labour Party’s 1945 manifesto architecture of “Let Us Face the Future.” The role of the festival as a government agenda in controlling and defining the buildings (designs) as well as other architectural and artistic features or spaces in Britain was much evident when it met a great controversy. For instance, many people had thought that this was a serious waste of money when the country was healing from the war ruins suggesting that much of the money would have been spent on housing after the war had destroyed many houses.
After opening the building, the Riverside Restaurant would be regarded as too futuristic while for the Royal Festival Hall, it would be viewed as too innovative, even the furnishings in the Café viewed as gaudy. In this case, it was a government’s project meant to drive the agenda on the design of the future public spaces and in the successive years, the festival would influence and define some of the successive foremost buildings in the country. The Festival would define the later developments in Britain, especially with the designs of Dome of Discovery, as well as the unique gaze at the Skylon, which was meant to be a national celebration of Britain’s achievement over the years. The festival showcased designs being sponsored and organised by the Labour party as it indicated how the government policies were at the centre stage of the design and construction of the major city, town, and local structures; the recommended designs would guide what the architects, artists, and designers focused on and extensively, the future of Britain’s reconstruction.
Nonetheless, few examples of the houses embodied what the government wanted to focus or recommend as the perfect housing design befitting and resonating with what it imagined as the reconstructed Britain. For instance, the Live Architecture, which was constructed under Frederick Gibberd, recommended sitting exhibition under the bomb-damaged Poplar; the intention was a graphical demonstration to the public of the extent to which the construction was poised to benefit their lives. The project would usher in designs of the new state and the market square, and as such, was an example of the template for the coming pedestrianised shopping centres in Britain. From its building, the estate was named after MP George Lansbury, as a representative of the Labour Party. After the completion of the Lansbury housing, it seemed to be a small-scale housing but commenters described its overall outcome as dull, worthy and skimpy. In this case, with many houses and estates built following the Lansbury model, the government was responsible for this dull and skimpy effect but still worthy housing design at the time and part of the manifestations of how the government’s policy had influenced the building and construction of public spaces in post-war London. Furthermore, with many residential houses or estates embodying Lansbury house design, it was evident that in the post-war era, the government’s policy had resulted in the uniformity of houses. For instance, the immediate post-war era, example being the Lansbury estate, followed the old East London housing design or tradition but eventually, would result in the new buildings appearing as a pale imitation of the older version.
Consequently, the Lansbury Estate remains as a practical example of the intended government policies because the open spaces of the housing or the estate as well as the community spaces were designed with the New Towns Act of 1946 along with the 1947 Town and Country Planning Acts. The new Towns Act of 1946 focused on rebuilding the urban environment and would influence the building or construction series of new towns. The Act established the New Town Development Corporations whose role was on managing, designing, and developing new Towns. Basically, they were projects of the government and as such, had been funded through Treasury loans. On the other hand, the Central Government appointed their boards which were given more control over planning besides powers for compulsory purchase orders. Moreover, the corporations were responsible for drawing up development frameworks for offices, housing, open space, transport infrastructure, and industrial development.
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The New Towns were developed under three stages. The first stage or generation began in the 1940s which was majorly on developing housing, with more developments on greenbelt sites but there was limited design for car spaces. On the other hand, the 1960s ushered in a new era whereby mixed uses on design and architecture were introduced as the government allowed for more innovation in architecture. The last phase for the development was the 1965, including Milton Keynes, as well as other towns like Central Lancashire, completed in 1970. The successive towns in the later years were majorly being designed to allow for car travel. Conversely, the New Towns would be criticised by the Conservative Government as breeding a generation of the British planners who disregarded the traditional British Cities and as such, majorly used political powers as well as public money in fashioning the environment to serve their interests.
Another government influence was from Harold Macmillan with his decision on high-density and high-rise housing, part of the plans of the new Conservative Government. The Cranbook Estate is an example of the housing design which was developed under the New Towns Corporation. The Designers including Douglas Bailey, Francis Skinner along with Berthold Lubetkin took into consideration the policy restrictions of the rule or the provision. It was part of the high-rise and high-density buildings which was recommended by Harold Macmillan.
On the other hand, the Country Planning Acts 1947 was focused on controlling local authorities as regards to planning and development of the city. From the Act, there were planning permissions established for all land developments. From the regulation, it was stated that ownership did not provide the right of developing the land. Furthermore, the Act provided more authority to the local government of which they had additional wide-ranging powers of which part of the role was approving the planning proposals. In this case, the local government was tasked with redeveloping lands, and even using compulsory purchase orders in buying land besides leasing out to private developers. Moreover, the act provided more powers to the government in preserving woodlands and the architectural buildings.
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In summary, from the above exploration, it is quite apparent that both the Labour and Conservative governments had profound implications on the design of buildings, public places, and space. The Labour government came up with the New Town Acts between 1946 and 1947 of which authority was given to the government or the local authority to plan, purchase land on compulsory order and develop the structures and public places or spaces based on the government’s vision. The London Festival of 1951 confirmed the government’s intention with the exhibitions on some of the architectural designs, estates, education system, and overall plan for the future Britain. The Conservative Party also introduced its own version with the introduction of the city building, including the Central Lancashire and the Cranbook Estate.
- Amos, Francis JC, ‘The town and country planning act 1947’, Planning Outlook 30.1 (1987), p. 12.
- Andrian Forty, ‘Festival politics’, in M. Banhma and B. Hiller (eds), A tonic to the Nation, London, 1976, p. 26-38.
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- Hobhouse, Hermione, ‘The Lansbury Estate: introduction and the Festival of Britain exhibition’, Survey of London: volumes 43 and 44: Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs (1994), 212-223.
- Jonathan Woodham, ‘Designing for the Welfare State, in British design from 1948 Innovation in the Modern Age, exhit.cat (V&A Publications, 2012) pp. 69-90.
- Keath, M.P.K, The development of school construction systems in Hertfordshire 1946-64(1983), http://gala.gre.ac.uk/8740/1/Michael_P._K._Keath_1983.pdf
- Labour Party (Great Britain). Executive Committee. Let us Face the Future: A Declaration of Labour Policy for the Consideration of the nation. Labour party, 1945.
- Morgan, Kenneth O, ‘The Autobiography of a Nation’, The 1951 Festival of Britain, (2004), 442-444.
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